Imagine, if you will, that someone walks up to you and says, “4+4=8. I’m just telling it like it is.”
Or, “Frankfort is the capital of Kentucky. I’m just telling it like it is.”
Or, “George Washington was our first President. I’m just telling it like it is.”
People Don’t Say “I’m Just Telling It Like It Is” in Such Contexts
People do not use the phrase “I’m just telling it like it is” in situations like the ones above, namely because pretty much everyone knows these things.
You don’t have to say “I’m just telling it like it is” about things which people already know that’s the way it is.
How Do People Actually Use the Phrase?
Rather, people tend use the phrase, “I’m just telling it like it is in situations like this:
“That is an ugly dress. I’m just telling it like it is.“
“You will never be a writer. I’m just telling it like it is.“
“People from that country are all criminals and rapists. I’m just telling it like it is.”
What the Phrase “I’m Just Telling It Like It Is” Really Means
In all of these situations, people say, “I’m just telling it like it is” precisely because what they are saying is in fact, not how it is. Or at least, it is not clear to everyone else that this is how it is.
When people say “I’m just telling it like it is” in situations like this, they are implying something like this: “What I am saying is harsh, and it will upset people, but it is the truth that people need to hear.”
Badges of Honor
In this case, the phrase “I’m just telling it like it is” becomes a badge of honor indicating that someone is courageous for speaking hard truths that people do not want to hear.
The idea is that someone is brave enough to say things that other people are not courageous enough to say for fear that that it might upset someone.
And it may be, indeed, that some people are being courageous and honorable when they say, “I’m just telling it like it is”. This, however, is not always the case.
In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle discusses the virtue of courage, and he suggests that sometimes when we think we are being courageous, were are actually being reckless.*
One of the main reasons I am writing this post is because I have become really interested over the years in discussions about politically correct language.
Especially in the recent election, many politicians, including the President, made very public the fact that they were flouting politically correct language and being a straight-shooter–just telling it like it is.
But I think we need to be more careful both about using the phrase “I’m just telling it like it is” and what we assume when someone else uses it.
After all, when people say things that upset other people, it can be for a number of reasons that have nothing to do with courage and honor.
1. The person is saying things that are prejudice, racist, and sexist and wants to disguise this fact.
2. The person is making outrageous and potentially false claims and does not want to justify or explain these claims.
3. The person is saying cruel things to humiliate and dominate people he or she is speaking to.
Anyone Can Say Upsetting Things
Upsetting people with hard words is no badge of honor in itself. I mean, anyone with a misanthropic attitude and lack of impulse control can anger people with ill-advised repartee.
Any dunderhead can upset and offend people.
There is certainly virtue in speaking the truth at an appropriate moment, even if it is an unpopular truth. This is especially the case if it is done with the intention of protecting someone.
Some Examples of When It’s Good To Speak Harsh Truths
For instance, when we tell a friend that the person they are with is abusing them. Or when we tell a friend that the choices they are making are leading them down a dangerous path.
These are instances in which what we say might upset the person we are talking to, but they are truths that person probably needs to hear.
So, what is the difference between a person who speaks hard truths as an act of bravery and one who is just being reckless and shooting off his or her mouth?
Here are three ways to tell:
1. First, the brave person is willing to present evidence to support his claims.
The impulsive person usually cannot be bothered to provide strong evidence supporting his claims or is insecure about people questioning him.
2. Second, the brave person is open to examining evidence that contradicts his claims.
The impulsive person cannot tolerate contradiction and assumes most if not all counter-examples are wrong or are based on lies.
3. Third, the brave person is willing to discuss his claims with other people.
The impulsive person likes to shut down dialogue through bullying and insults (because any prolonged dialogue will likely expose the impulsive nature of the claims).
If someone is brave enough to speak hard truths, he should be brave enough to hear the hard truth: “You are wrong about that.”
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*See Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Books 2:9 and Book 3:6-7. You can read Nicomachean Ethics here.
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Published by shellypruittjohnson
My name is Shelly Johnson, and I am a writer and philosopher with a Ph.D. in philosophy. One of my primary personal and philosophical interests is how we can learn to love ourselves and each other better in order to cultivate personal and political resilience. I teach ethics and a variety of other courses at a local college. I am the author of the blog Love is Stronger. I am also the author of three logic and critical thinking books for high school and middle school: _Argument Builder_, _Discovery of Deduction_ (co-author), and _Everyday Debate_, published by Classical Academic Press. You can reach me at email@example.com.
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18 thoughts on ““I’m Just Telling It Like It Is”: I Do Not Think That Phrase Means What You Think It Means”
Howard Cosell built an entire career as a sportscaster based upon the phrase.
I did not know this! I will have to check that out. Thanks, mgradyc.
Today, while I was at work, my sister stole my apple ipad and tested to see if it can survive a 40 foot drop, just so she can be a youtube sensation. My iPad is now destroyed and she has 83 views. I know this is entirely off topic but I had to share it with someone!
Good heavens! Well, hopefully she busy you a new one.
Exactly! I have family members and others in my life (not by choice) that always use, “I just say how it is” and I’ve always thought, “Noo, that isn’t how it is. Those are YOUR bias opinions. Really you are just rude and hateful and hide behind that.” It drives me crazy. AND if I were to tell her or him how the majority of the people around them truly feel, it would destroy them. BUT hey I would just be telling them “how it is!”
Hi Kik: Thanks for reading and commenting. I really sympathize with this point you have made and your own personal experience. Frequently, although not always, people with extremely strong opinions also tend to be extremely sensitive to criticism. The unfortunate result is that they want to to tell everyone else how it is but are not very interested in hearing about this themselves. I know this because I used to struggle with this very problem! I think many people become so attached to their own personal beliefs that they really struggle looking at the world from a different perspective. It feels scary to them. I know that was the case for me. Have a great day, Friend.